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Atlanta Hawks Defense: The REAL Reason the Hawks Are Contenders

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While many have referenced the pass-first, high efficiency offense as the main reason for the Atlanta Hawks success half-way through the season, defense is the true improvement for the Hawks developed by Coach Bud’s unselfish philosophy.

Coach Bud has been the reason for the Hawks' success on defense
Coach Bud has been the reason for the Hawks' success on defense
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

On November 26th, 2014, the Hawks lost to the Raptors in Atlanta to bring their record to 7-6. Since then, the Hawks have gone 34-3 in their last 37 games, including a 19 game win streak and several signature wins over tough competition. What happened over these 37 games that turned what was essentially a mediocre team in the first 13 games into the juggernauts we see before us today?

The players reference a team meeting Coach Bud held after the Toronto loss as the turning point of the season. The meeting, which lasted early into the following day, was about defense. They had been outplayed by the Raptors (and had allowed 126 points on their home floor) and Coach Bud was not happy, to say the least. While none of us may truly know what happened in that meeting, what we do know is that the Hawks team that came out against the Pelicans two days later was not the same team at all.

I had the good fortune to be at that game, and the difference was palpable. There were two main shifts that proved to be integral in the creation of the Hawks we see today: first, a dedication to helping each other on both sides of the floor and second, good offense starts with better defense. The entire team has bought into these ideas, which has resulted in the transcendent play we've enjoyed on the court. This piece will be a deep dive into statistics, play-by-play analysis, and specific player performances (Teague, Carroll, and Horford will be our case studies) in the hopes of determining how the Hawks have been able to improve so drastically over this stretch. However, the final question is: does this make the Hawks title contenders? Let's see.

Team Defense

So let's start by trying to establish that the Hawks are indeed an elite defensive team. "Elite" (perhaps the most confounding term in all of basketball writing) will mean top 5 in the NBA; that's just my opinion, but it's a subjective word. First, we'll run through a few team statistics that I think demonstrate Atlanta's defensive approach. Then, we'll take a look at how the Hawks have performed defensively against the best offenses in the NBA. Here are a few of the statistics that I think best demonstrate the Hawks defensive strengths.

  • Allow 3rd fewest PPG in the NBA at 96.5
  • 2nd in eDiff at +7.3 (ORtg - DRtg)
  • 5th lowest opponent FG% at 36.2%
  • 5th highest opponent TOV% at 14.6% (This means that 14.6% of opposing possessions end in a TO)
  • 6th in Steals/Game (8.7) and 5th in STL%
  • Top 10 in both lowest opponent eFG% AND lowest opponent TS%
  • Fewest fouls per game at 8.5

Before we really dive into the numbers, I'm going to take a quick moment to describe what the Hawks look like personnel-wise. Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Thabo Sefelosha, Kent Bazemore, and Mike Scott are all between 6'5" and 6'8". These players are the ones who bear the brunt of the wing defending and help defense. While the Hawks may be "undersized" in the frontcourt, the break from guard to forward on the roster isn't exactly clear. This means that all of these players are effective on switching in the Pick & Roll (P&R) and dropping in help on the weakside.

All that said, let's take a look at the stats above. The low opposing PPG number hinges on the Hawks' ability to force turnovers and low percentage shots. Furthermore, they commit the fewest fouls per game in the NBA, which means that they get the most out of every defensive possession and limit opposing free throws (opponents avg. 21 FTA per game). While the Hawks may not have a "rim-protector," they do keep the opposition to low FG%. Of course, FG% is such an arbitrary statistic when analyzing defense, especially because it can be difficult to know if missed shots are poor decisions by the offense or well-contested by the defense.

That being said, the Hawks' ability to force turnovers fills out the picture a bit more. Forcing turnovers is not only a great way to rattle opposing offenses, it's also integral in starting early offense in transition: the Hawks score 18 points per game off turnovers, good enough for 6th in the NBA. Opposing offenses average a 3:2 AST:TOV ratio, which further indicates how important forcing Turnovers is in this defense. Now let's take a look at how the Hawks D stands up against the top offenses in the League. At the writing of this piece, the 5 best offenses that the Hawks have played, in terms of Offensive Rating, are:

  1. Clippers (ORtg 113): 2 GP, 101 PPG, 15.5 TO/Game (3 above avg), 42% (35/83) FG%, allowed 9.5 Steals/Game
  2. Raptors (ORtg 112.3): 3 GP, 108 PPG, 12.3 TO/Game, 45% (35/84) FG%
  3. Mavericks (ORtg 112): 1 GP, 102 pts, 15 TOs, 43% (39/90) FG%
  4. Cavaliers (ORtg: 110.2): 3 GP, 108.7 PPG (127 in 1 of 3), 13 TO/Game, 48% (41/85) FG%, allowed 7.3 Steals/Game
  5. Pelicans (ORtg: 108.9): 2 GP, 103 PPG, 12.5 TO/Game, 45% (39/87)

The most important points of focus for me are the 15.5 TO/G and 13 TO/G against the Clippers and the Cavaliers, respectively. Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving run those offenses and yet the Hawks were able to force very high TO rates.

It is clear that the Hawks have found a way to maximize their personnel to wreak havoc on opposing point guards. On most teams (perhaps less so on the Cavs with LeBron James running sets), the point guard is where the offense begins, and cutting the head off the snake is the most effective way to freeze up the opposition. The 108.7 PPG against Cleveland is skewed by the blowout loss to them 127-94 in Cleveland before the Hawks had made their changes on defense. In the other two games, the Cavs scored 98 and 101 points, much more fitting with the defensive trends we've seen from the Hawks recently.

Having active, athletic wing defenders is the easiest way to ensure that opposing point guards do not have clear lanes into the paint, as well as getting hands into passing lanes by switching and helping, thereby breaking up the offensive flow. What all of this data is meant to show is that the Hawks defense has become one of the best in league by focusing on forcing turnovers and poor shot selection. These are the results from implementing Coach Bud's help defense schemes, as well as his philosophy with regard to team defense.

While all the stats are well and good, let's really dive into what the Hawks do on defense with some good old fashioned film. Below, I'll show you some examples of the Hawks defense doing what it does best: choking out opposing offenses with good help defense. A lot of these possessions end in blocks, which aren't the Hawks forte, but it's hard to find highlights of the opposing team shooting bad shots. That being said, these examples are still useful in determining how the Hawks force bad shots in general.

Play by Play Analysis

These plays will go in chronological order from different important games through the year, starting with the Pelicans game immediately after the loss to the Raptors that sparked the defensive revolution. They are meant to be snapshots into the Hawks' defensive strategy and should lend some context to the stats I outlined above (Click links to see the plays).

In this play, there are 2 main things I want to point out. First off, Bud likes to have his players push towards the baseline into the help (in this case Pero). Teague pushes Holliday into the help, forcing him to dish to Asik. Second, Bud likes dropping the wing defender to help when the ball is in the post, so we see Korver find the opportunity to stop the shot. At the end of the play, notice how there are 4 Hawks players in the paint, clustering around the ball.

I love this play for a number of reasons. First off, we see Carroll and Horford pushing LeBron to the corner. Then, Al hustles out to the 3-point line to block Kevin Love's shot on the perimeter, which turns into a transition 3 for Mack. Not many Centers have the quickness to close out a shooter on the perimeter when they've just been trapping in the corner. That dedication to defense is a prime example of Bud's philosophy at work. Plays like these also turn into easy offense for the Hawks, yet another tenet in Bud's system "Defense creates Offense."

This is a great clip because of the angle. You can clearly see how crisp the Hawks defensive movement is: every player with their head on a swivel, and showing help whenever they can. We have a drive & kick with Beverly and Ariza, Korver knows he's beat but is confident pushing Ariza towards the help. The difference maker is Millsap on the weak side. Bud has shown time and time again his willingness to have players drop to the weak side block to contest shots, this is no different.

The Lillard/Aldridge P&R might be one of the most deadly plays in the NBA. Notice how when Lillard comes off the pick, Millsap and Thabo simply contain him and push him baseline towards Horford. Millsap and Thabo are both long defenders and could close off the swing back to LMA on the pop. Herding Lillard into the help allows for Horford to make that play on the ball and get the block.

We see a dribble handoff between Gasol and Conley. Gasol rolls off the hand off straight to the rim. Notice how Antic switches up and gets in Conley's face, trusting that Millsap and Carroll will rotate over (which they do, perfectly). This forces Gasol to drop it to Allen, who in turn gets swarmed by Bazemore and Carroll. Bazemore was recovering after Conley turned the corner on the handoff. That scrambling, heavy help defense leads to these weakside opportunities because what might seem to be an easy layup to the offense, turns into a block or a steal that they weren't expecting.

There are two great defensive plays from this game. In the first, Korver gets beat on the backdoor cut by Beal, but Horford has his head on a swivel and is in good help to come and get the block. The real value here, though, is that Horford then runs the break and finds an easy bucket for Carroll in transition. Defense creates offense. In the second play, there's a lot of movement from the Wizards, including a down screen between Nene/Beal, then another high screen between those two. In the second Pick & Pop with Nene, notice how Millsap and Korver contain him and force a pick up. Teague sees this opportunity to rotate over to Beal (good help defense after the Korver/Millsap trap) and gets an easy steal and bucket in transition.

There's a lot to digest here, but here are the main takeaways from these plays. First, Bud likes it when his wing defenders push penetrators to the corners and into the help. He works hard to make sure that there is limited penetration in the paint, where he knows he doesn't have a conventional "rim-protector." Second, by installing a high-switch, high-help defense, this allows for players like Carroll, Sefelosha, Bazemore, and Teague to get easy steals when the offense is forced to swing. Finally, forcing turnovers and bad shots plays to the Hawks' strengths: speed and quickness, allowing them to get easy points in transition and keep the opposing defense from setting up. The plays above are clear examples of these defensive principles.

Player Performance

While Bud's defensive system and strategy is incredibly important, ultimately it's the players that have to execute. Bud has done his best with the pieces he has and it is clear that Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll, and Al Horford have thrived defensively in his system. Let's take a quick look at their individual performances so we can see just how successful the Hawks have been defensively with their best defensive players.

Jeff Teague
  • 1.7 Steals/Game (Career High), 2.8% STL% (CH), 103 DRtg, 1.9 Def Win-Shares
  • Hawks STL% drops 3.1% when Teague is off the court (10.5%-7.4%)
  • Opponent TOV% is 1.5% higher when Teague is on the court (17.3%-15.8%)
  • Opponent ORtg improves by 1.8 when Teague is off the court (101.8-103.6)
DeMarre Carroll
  • 1.2 Steals/Game, 2.5 Fouls/Game, 2% STL%, 103 DRtg, 1.8 Def Win-Shares
  • Hawks STL% drops 1.6% when DMC is off the court (10.0%-8.4%)
  • Opponent TOV% is 1.4% higher when DMC is on the court (17.3%-15.9%)
Al Horford
  • 1.4 Blocks/Game, 1.6 Fouls/Game (Career Low), 3.8% BLK% (CH), 2.3 Def Win-Shares, 101 DRtg (CL)
  • Opponent eFG% drops 0.5% when Horford is on the court

Let me start by saying that while Al Horford's defensive statistics may not be eye-popping, in the play analysis above, you can clearly see his worth on the defensive end. Furthermore, as anyone who watches a consistent amount of Hawks basketball will tell you, his value on defense is nearly impossible to quantify, not to mention his ability to run the break as a Center.

Jeff Teague clearly is having the best defensive season of his life, notching more steals than ever before as well as being integral in forcing opposing TOs. He finds ways to take opposing PGs out of their rhythm by never giving them a moment's rest (a prime example was his late game steal against Russell Westbrook).

DeMarre Carroll shows us once again why he is regarded as a premier wing defender by having a very similar effect on opposing offenses as Teague, but it's even more impressive due to the fact that DMC is also guarding larger and stronger players. Furthermore, DMC commits very few fouls, showing how well-disciplined and focused he is on defense. While these things often go overlooked, they are integral pieces in creating a championship-caliber defense.

Conclusion

This piece attempts to answer the question: does the Hawks Defense make them Title Contenders? The Answer: Yes. Many laud the Hawks' ball movement and efficiency on the offensive end as the main reason for their success, but what this article has tried to show is that this offensive success is a function of the stellar defense the Hawks have played and, even more generally, Coach Bud's basketball philosophy, which pervades both offense and defense. Even Kyle Korver is improving with 21 blocks so far this year, when he had 24 TOTAL last year.

Starting on that night in late November after a tough loss to the Raptors, Coach Bud set the groundwork for what is now a Top 5 defense in the NBA. By hammering home concepts like help defense, high switching on P&R, and active hands in passing lanes, he's found a way to maximize the utility of his roster, particularly in that middle block of athletic wing defenders. Oh and by the way, the Hawks allowed 93.6 and 93.7 PPG in the months of December and January, respectively. While there is still much to improve on (like Mike Scott's defense for example) the right pieces are in place to reach even greater heights. We might yet see improvements come Playoff time, but as of now, this team can hang with any offense in the NBA.

This article by no means is meant to claim that the Hawks will be Champions (as wonderful as that would be), but rather I'm trying to prove that their defense is good enough to get them there, barring any serious injuries. Ultimately, the  postseason is an entirely different season altogether, but the Hawks seem well-poised to make a deep run, equipped with a basketball philosophy and teamwork that is second to none, perhaps most perfectly demonstrated by the way they play defense. They say, "Defense wins Championships," and maybe they're right, but as far as the Hawks are concerned, if they do reach the Finals we will look back on their defense as the main reason why they were so successful.

Tony Papadopoulos (@Whos_Your_Papa)

All statistics were gathered using basketball.realgm.com and basketball-reference.com.